Planned protests inspired by events elsewhere in the region were ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of people who protested or dared to call for reform were arrested; some were prosecuted on security-related and political charges. Thousands of people suspected of security-related offences remained in prison. The justice system and information about detainees, including prisoners of conscience, remained shrouded in secrecy, although it was clear that torture and grossly unfair trials continued. Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, particularly flogging, continued to be imposed and carried out. Women and girls faced severe discrimination in law and practice, as well as violence; increased campaigning for women’s rights resulted in arrests as well as some small improvements. Foreign migrant workers continued to be exploited and abused by their employers, generally with impunity. At least 82 prisoners were executed, a sharp rise over the previous two years.
The government responded to planned pro-reform protests in early 2011 by extending additional benefits to citizens reported to be worth around US$127bn. However, sporadic protests continued, particularly by Shi’a Muslims in Eastern Province who alleged discrimination and called for the release of political prisoners. On 5 March, the Interior Ministry reaffirmed the total ban on public demonstrations, and a large mobilization by security forces combined with threats forestalled a planned “Day of Rage” by advocates of reform called on 11 March. Even so, hundreds of people were arrested in connection with protests in 2011, mainly members of the Shi’a Muslim minority, pro-reform activists and women’s rights activists. Many were released without charge.
On 15 March, the government sent 1,200 Saudi Arabian troops in tanks and other armoured vehicles across the causeway to Bahrain to help crush pro-reform protests there, apparently at the invitation of Bahrain’s ruling family.Top of page
A new draft anti-terror law was discussed in the Shura council, the body that advises the King, but it had not been enacted by the end of the year. The version of the draft law leaked to Amnesty International proposed to add sweeping new powers to those already possessed by the Interior Ministry and mandate jail sentences for anyone deemed to have criticized the King or expressed opposition to the government. It would allow for suspects to be detained without charge or trial potentially indefinitely, while the trials and appeals of those prosecuted could constitute unfair trials, even though some offences could incur the death penalty. The draft would also empower the Interior Minister to order phone tapping and house searches without judicial authorization. The overly broad definition of terrorism in the draft raised concern that it could be used to penalize or suppress legitimate expression of dissent.
Thousands of security suspects continued to be held, many for long periods without charge despite the six-month legal limit on detention without trial. Among them were government opponents who had been detained for months or years without trial. Many security detainees had been held for years without being tried and convicted or had been convicted of acts that are not recognized internationally as constituting a crime.
Security suspects are generally held incommunicado after arrest and while under interrogation, often for months, before they are permitted family visits. Many are tortured or otherwise ill-treated. They are usually held until the authorities decide they are not a security threat or they undertake not to engage in opposition activities. Some are released but then quickly re-arrested; many are detained without charge or trial.
It remained impossible independently to determine the number of people imprisoned on security grounds or for suspected involvement in terrorism; however, some indication of the scale was evident from government statements in recent years. In February, the Justice Minister announced that the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh had issued preliminary verdicts in 442 cases, involving 765 security suspects. In April, the Interior Ministry said that 5,831 security detainees had been released in recent years, including 184 since the start of 2011; that 5,080 security detainees had been questioned and referred for trial while 616 were still being questioned; that 1,931 others had been questioned and could be referred to the Specialized Criminal Court; and that 1,612 people had been convicted of “terrorism offences”. In addition, 486 people convicted of security-related offences were said by the Interior Ministry to have been compensated for being detained beyond the expiry of their sentence.Top of page
The Press and Publications Law was extended to cover web publishing in January and further amended in April, tightening restrictions on freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, peaceful advocates of political change, members of religious minorities and others who called for reforms were among those detained without charge or trial or convicted after unfair trials in which they had no legal representation.
The authorities suppressed attempts to organize protests and those who sought to protest were arrested and faced other forms of repression.
Hundreds of Shi’a Muslims were arrested following protests in Eastern Province. Most were released but some remained in detention.
Women continued to face severe discrimination both in law and in practice. They must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel, take paid work, engage in higher education or marry, and their evidence carries less weight in a court of law than that of men. Domestic violence against women was believed to remain rife.
Women joined the calls for reform and organized in support of women’s rights. One group launched an online campaign “Women2Drive” and urged Saudi Arabian women possessing international driving licences to start driving vehicles on Saudi Arabian roads from 17 June. Scores of women reportedly did so; some were arrested and made to sign pledges to desist. At least two were facing trial. The campaign subsequently became part of a new, wider campaign for women’s rights entitled “My right, my dignity”.
In September, the King announced that from 2015 women will have the right to vote and run in municipal elections, the country’s only public poll, and to be appointed to the Shura council.
Migrant workers continued to face exploitation and abuse by private and state employers, and victims had little or no redress. Typical abuses included long working hours, non-payment of salaries and violence, particularly against women domestic workers. Women domestic workers who fled abusive sponsors often ended up facing worse conditions in the illegal labour market.
New reports were received of torture and other ill-treatment, a pattern of abuse that was believed to remain common with interrogators seeking to extract “confessions” from suspects.
Flogging was routinely imposed as a sentence by the courts and carried out as the main or as an additional punishment. More than 100 men and women were sentenced to flogging.
The recorded number of executions rose sharply, with at least 82 people executed, over triple the number recorded in 2010. Those executed included at least five women and at least 28 foreign nationals. At least 250 prisoners remained under sentence of death, including some sentenced for offences not involving violence, such as apostasy and sorcery. Many were foreign nationals, sentenced for drug-related offences after grossly unfair trials.